As undergraduates, La Forrest Cope (B.A. 2005) took Hahn's senior seminar in Asian-American literature and John McLaughlin (B.A. 2008) her poetry workshop. Seeing promise, she recruited them for the college's master of fine arts program in creative writing and literary translation.
Like many adult students, they brought exceptional experience to their studies. Cope (M.F.A. 2009) was a backup singer and musician for superstars Michael Jackson and Luther Vandross and wrote a Grammy-winning hit for Whitney Houston. She is writing a novel about the music business titled, Soul Shakers.
McLaughlin (M.F.A. 2010) retired from the New York City Fire Department as a lieutenant. Now a city council member in Long Beach, NY, he is polishing a novel linked to his 9/11 experiences that he calls Tethered to Dust.
During their graduate work, Cope took Hahn's poetry workshop and McLaughlin her class in poetics, or the craft of writing poetry. The goal was not to turn these prose writers into poets but, reflecting the MFA program's cross-genre approach, to deepen their understanding of language, image and structure.
What's it like to grow up singing in a Baptist gospel chorus or to stand in the ashes of the World Trade Center? It's impossible to express feelings in the same way in poetry as in prose. Working in a different genre "gets you to look at things in different ways," McLaughlin says. "You take these influences and develop your own style."
Says songwriter Cope: "The mindful juxtaposition of poetry within prose creates another dimension, giving an author the opportunity to connect both emotionally and intellectually with a reader note by note and word by word."
Hahn, author of eight books of poetry including her latest, the science-inspired Toxic Flora, that will be published next year, formed a group for professors in CUNY's four M.F.A. programs (Brooklyn, City, Hunter and Queens Colleges). The teacher-writers discuss instructional issues like mentoring and plan projects that bring students together from different campuses.
"Although a writer necessarily works alone, it's important to have a writing community or a network of writer-friends and contacts," she says. "There is a difference between isolation and a writer's necessary solitude."